For some, the word communism carries a bad connotation in both political and social terms. Beginning from critique on Karl Marx, over to failed states like the Soviet Union, to the countless dictators, who were responsible for millions of deaths, communists are viewed as aggressive, radical, closed-minded and, therefore, repulsive. For some, however, communism is a viable option as a societal and economic structure that allows for a more equal distribution of a nation’s wealth. In their eyes, communism abolishes injustice, created by the free market economy through limiting possessions and redistributing excessive resources. Political systems have a very lively relationship with this ideological construct, that actually has its roots in economic theory. Although the number of states that have adopted a communist political governing structure has dropped significantly with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the ideology is still attractive to many. In all states in this world, there is at least one more or less organised group that promotes communism. Nonetheless, proponents of communism are often viewed as inferior, weak, unprofessional and annoying – seldom are they taken seriously. Especially in elitist circles and among economic actors are communists probably the least welcomed people. But how come that communism is so radically loved by its supporters and so hated by its opponents?
Communism and Its Rival
In order to be able to answer this question, we need to shortly sketch the ideological underpinnings of communism and its biggest rival: capitalism. Approaching it in the strictest sense, communism is an economic theory. It argues that private ownership gives unjustified advantages to some, while leaving others behind. Therefore, it should be the state’s responsibility to redistribute the means of production, which would require the abolition of private property, which, in turn, would make money and trade obsolete, as the state manages the economy. Grounded in social observations, this theory connects many different economic, social and political aspects and mixes them together. It is born out of the idea to abolish societal differences among people, which came into existence in the first place, due to different monetary means. As such, communism became more than just a theory for many: it gave them meaning, it became an ideology. Especially, the aspect of meaning will be of central importance in the later course of this article.
On the other side, there is the biggest rival of the communist idea: capitalism. In its purest form, capitalism defends that the dynamic of economic conduct is a self-balancing mechanism, meaning that the actions and reactions in an economy are not only logical, but also necessary to uphold an efficient system. Advocates of this school of thought wish to keep state intervention in the economy as low as possible. Accordingly, the concept of private property is maybe the most important building-block of capitalism. One could also argue that the capitalist theory completely separates the economy and the state from one another and treats them as two (relatively) independent systems.
It becomes clear where the friction between the two sides comes from. Communists claim that people, who do not have a lot of money, are bound to have a lower standard of living. This argument is based on the ownership what we call means of production. Put simply, the factory owner has the opportunity to invest her money, in order to increase her wealth. Also, the excess money can be used to better develop oneself or even influence politics. Hence, with an existing base capital, the rich can multiply it and wind up in an ever-improving circle of life. The workers in the factory, however, receive a salary that is just enough to cover monthly expenses, which means that they cannot easily improve their lives and usually end up working their whole life without being able to experience many joys this life has to offer. That being so, communism addresses a great concern of the working class and gives hope to those that see themselves in a miserable cycle of never-ending, physical and under-paid work.
The big problem with the communist ideal, as the proponents of capitalism argue, is that it is almost impossible to translate it into a working reality. Here, they draw the attention to all the failed communist regimes, such as under Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and many others that not only left an impoverished country behind, but also drained it in blood of its people. Capitalists say: “If it would work, it would have worked. You had your chances.”
Symbolism as a Key Factor
Today, we live in a world in which most countries are mostly capitalist, meaning that their economies are generally based on the free market principle; also, most communist states failed to this point. It is easy to say that communism simply will not work, but there might be another reason for its failure: symbolism. When we think about communism, we inevitably connect it to the colour red and to the symbol of the crossed hammer and sickle. When we think about capitalism, what do we think about actually? Euro signs? Money? A particular state’s flag? We do not know, because capitalism does not have a distinct symbol – it is just there. This is an immensely important point. As mentioned earlier, communism started as an economic theory. It was not more than just an idea how we can structure production and distribution of production outcomes in a way that benefits all – in principle, a great idea. However, with the emergence of a symbol for communism, people could put the whole theory in a comprehensible format and categorise it more easily. Breaking such a complex theory down to a symbol and loosely organised thoughts around this symbol, the theory suddenly became an ideology. Then it became subject to misuse and misunderstanding, because transmitting an ideology is not done in long and sophisticated documents with methodologically correct inferences, but rather casually in a few sentences, drowned in connotation. Simplifying this complex construct in such a brutal way, necessarily means that a great deal of important information is lost on its way. Accordingly, the ideology becomes more a tool for exercising power than a viable blueprint for a just system. When we look at the history of communism, we can see just that: charismatic and radical leaders gathered masses of people through verbal manipulation, which was centred around the utilisation of the hammer and sickle on a red background as a symbol of revolutionary justice.
Capitalism never had any of this. It remained a plain school of thought and proved to be quite useful. Nobody went on the streets in the name of capitalism. There are no country flags with a Dollar sign on them. To close the circle, we can also see that nobody truly understands capitalism. While many people could somehow summarise communism within one or to sentences, by repeating a slogan of any communist dictator (of course will these summaries completely miss the core of the communist thought), many would be overwhelmed when asked to summarise capitalism in a sentence or two.
Capitalism is not more complex than communism, but because there was never a symbol attached to it to make it easier to understand, it remained outside of the cognitive world of the ordinary citizen. The interaction with communism is, on the other hand, incredibly high, because it was broken down to a very modest idea. From this perspective, the debate between capitalism and communism gains a whole new dimension and it is astounding to see how impactful symbolism can be on such a large scale.